What is the best way to tackle Belfast with teens?
As a pre-parent adult traveller, my idea of exploring a town was to walk around it until my legs gave out, taking in the main attractions with a bit of back street off-grid thrown in for interest.
Kids do not take to this approach. A named destination in which a level of interest has previously been expressed is a must. Also, there should be a food plan or people start to panic.
Here are the things to do in Belfast with teenagers that we found on our 3-day trip with the potential to entertain the troops, and a couple of top tips to ensure you don’t end up too off-piste.
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Being fairly ignorant, I was unaware of Belfast’s connection with the ship. I had seen black and white footage of the Titanic leaving Southampton, and then the drama with Leonardo and the iceberg, but not really dug any deeper.
The ship was in fact built in Belfast and the signs quip that is was working just fine when it left here.
The Titanic building
The museum’s shiny silver facades reflect in shallow pools, evoking the essence of the ship itself. The interior is artily crafted from titanic (couldn’t resist) metal strips, the size of the original iron panels used to construct the monster ship.
Having entered the metallic belly of the museum beast, you will find yourself walking virtually through turn of the century Belfast. Learn about the perfect industrial storm leading to the conception and creation of the mighty ship; how it was almost inevitable that a city famed for rope-making, linen, iron-work and whisky would come to produce and kit out the world’s largest ship.
Just as your legs are in need of a perch – you will find “the pod”.
In the manner of a slo-mo fairground ride, you are physically transported through a 3 storey recreation of the ship, from fiery furnaces and relentless riveters below to public houses on deck. (Sadly the drinkers in the bar are fake silhouettes and no actual Guinness is served at this point in the tour.)
Your journey through the boat's story
- Exiting the pod, the ship’s launch is recreated with views down the site of the original slipway.
- In a separate room you are treated to views of a moving movie sea as a waiter lays some very fancy silverware on a table behind you and chats about the trip.
- Be prepared to be regaled with impossible numbers – of bottles of wine, cigars and table linen stowed on board. (They had to bring enough for the whole trip as there were no laundry facilities.)
- A fascinating wall of photos and mini-biographies of a selection of passengers gives the relentless numbers a human dimension.
- A first class cabin has been recreated in a glass box for you to peep in.
There is so much to take in, and you are so engrossed walking in the shoes of the craftsmen and excited passengers, that you almost forget about the impending doom.
Incident room: But then darkness falls and you enter the room where the voices of survivors tell their experiences of the day the ship went down, whilst a 2d recreation of the sinking takes place on the walls around you.
The inquest, held each side of the Atlantic, is brought to you by quite surreal floating heads in a rowing boat.
Dramatising the drama: How could a Titanic museum ignore Jack and Rose? They played vital role in keeping the story alive. Learn about the story of the story in the display dedicated to cinematic interpretations of the events and characters. Find out which were based on real passengers and whether the baddies were real or inventions of artistic licence.
The science-y bit
After all the human drama, it is back to science-y bit. Hear about the adventurers who sought to track down the missing sunken ship an check out their yellow submarine discovery capsules.
Walk over glass floors where the huge hull emerges out of the deep beneath you, as if you are one of the divers discovering the original barnacle-encrusted ghost ship.
Techy teens can have a go at interactive echo-location devices which track the sea bed over the Northern Irish coastline (the undulating Giants Causeway section is fun).
This museum is a multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary activity-fest that will suit fans of history, drama and science. Quite an achievement.
Set in a pleasant open area near the water front, the museum is a 15-minute walk over the River Lagan from the town centre
- Adult: £19.50
- Child (11-15): £8.75
- Children (up to 10); free
- Family ticket £48
There is a café on site and several eating options within a short walk. Look out for the honesty café near which serves cakes and drinks for donations to raise money for charity.
Picnic benches are available for Subway take outs or the organised packed-luncher.
Don’t forget the audio guide or assume it is not available in Covid ( as we did until we saw some lucky woman wearing one, too late for us to turn back round the one-way system). I bet the story is even better when some one tells it to you!
You can buy Titanic themed everything, from nautical wear to sweets and fridge magnets. We went for one of each and the book to fill in the bits we missed through the headphones.
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The Ulster National History Museum
To discover the story of this relatively new nation, and complex city you will need we the assistance of number 2 on our list of things to do in Belfast with teenagers, the largest museum in Northern Ireland.
The museum’s exterior, classical with an ultra-modern brutalist extension, looks a bit odd but nicely reflects its collections, from the stone age to the troubles of today. I cropped off the modern bit as being too ugly and weird, but wish I hadn’t now. Google its strangeness.
The Ulster museum covered all the main areas interest of our teens, from the comedy stuffed animals in the zoology zone to the shiny rocks in the geology section, and covered a whole new area of history (for us) looking at the Troubles.
I was also interested to see the Northern Irish take on the more distant historical events that swept through England, from the Vikings to the Romans. Same but different, as it were.
Don’t miss the real periodic table, where you get to see a small sample of each element. I hadn’t realised I wanted to do this until I saw it. Brilliant. Spent ages looking for shiny and dangerous elements.
The exhibits are visually impressive although themes were sometimes hard to spot. The skeleton of a dinosaur blue whale (I’m guessing here) sits quite happily next to a Chitty Bang Bang style car.
One way system
One thing I will say is that the one-way Covid system seemed (and I may have gone the wrong way), to start at the modern day and work backwards in time, which is really hard to do. You kind of need to know what happened first to understand what is going on today. Especially in the Troubles section.
Outside you can enjoy, on a sunnier day than gifted to us, the botanic gardens.
Cost: Entry is free but you may need to book ahead for a time slot
Getting there: Don’t attempt to walk here from the Titanic. it takes an hour and your legs will not be interested in the exhibits when you arrive (and the walk takes you up a fairly grim main road with stag and hen parties spilling out on to the pavement).
Instead, take a bus from the town centre using Google Maps.
Café: There is a café on site but it does close before the museum so don’t leave it to the end of the day or you will be disappointed cup of tea-wise.
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Most teens love a bit of the macabre. To really get a sense of the city’s past, why not add Crumlin Gaol as number 3 on your things to do in Belfast with teenagers list? The hanging room is optional.
Life on the inside
The life-sized but celluloid tour guides in Crumlin Gaol, and pop up in full Victorian garb unexpectedly in tunnels and cell blocks to give you an insight into prison life.
Follow in the footsteps of the convicted and walk through the tunnel which runs from the courthouse, under the road and into the prison.
Then, unlike the prisoners of old, you are free to wander through cells, each of which contains a short educational film about an aspect of prison life from 1845 to 1996. Your narrators will include Victorian rope makers (actors) and real former lags from the 1970’s who will regale you with tales, straight out of an episode of Porridge, of rope-ladder escapes over the wall during football matches.
The pace is at times quite slow, even for a younger audience, but then, at the really crucial “history of all Ireland“ room, speeds up to a terrifyingly fast Horrible Histories pace. I sat through it twice and think I got the basics, but there is a LOT to take in.
Public executions were brought indoors from 1901 and the tour ends with the hanging room, where a noose dangles ominously from the ceiling. You spend a sobering few minutes learning about the final hours the condemned prisoners.
Top Tip: Don’t let your teen get ahead of you (as we did) meaning they face this room alone, with no way back to the main prison or their family.
17 convicts have been executed at Crumlin Goal and their bodies are buried along the prison walls in unconsecrated graves, marked only with their initials and date of demise.
The military helicopter gives the place a modern twist and on-going civil war-zone vibe and matched the gun metal skies. Read about its deployment in the Troubles and its pre-retirement peacetime role in search and rescue missions.
Getting there: Do not follow the walking route on Google Maps from the town centre as this will literally take you past gun-toting murals in the middle of the Shankhill Estate. Either follow the main A road, or hop off the Hop on/off-able bus tour outside the prison.
Food: Dungeon cafe – The Cuffs bar and grill in the prison basement is surprisingly fancy, with green velvet banquettes and amazing food. The Irish Stew was a tasty bargain.
There being an actual pub in the prison, you might just have to go for a beer, for the sake of all those who couldn’t.
Alternatively, grab a coffee and sandwich from the coffee shop in the prison yard and dine al fresco on picnic benches in the shadow of the prison walls.
Child (5-15) £7
Family of 4 £30 (£27 online)
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W5 Science museum
This interactive world of wonder was closed for a £5 million refit when we were in town but it looks amazing on the website which promises a “skull cave” and space / dinosaur themed climbing maze.
Getting there: The W5 is a 5-minute walk from the Titanic Museum so doing the museum double makes sense (if you are a 2 activity a day family – which we sometimes are not).
Cost (with Gift Aid0:
- Adult £11
- Child (3-15) £9
- Family £36.50
Open: 7 days – seasonal hours
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So, one for the older teen here, or at least a teen with a stomach for a gritty tale.
The murals tour was a controversial number 4 on our list of things to do in Belfast with teenagers. Not everyone in the party was fully committed to a tour of political murals as a holiday activity. But passing up the chance to learn about this unique set of political circumstances seemed wrong. And taking a guide seemed the safest and most authentic way to navigate this complex area.
We were to meet our tour guide in his black cab outside the gaol, not realising that he would have spent some time inside its walls. You certainly get the insider story.
The tour takes you to a set of murals representing both sides of the conflict.
To avoid overrunning a residential estate, and to keep the tours politically neutral, the residents have agreed which murals are included on the tours and the guides’ script for each mural.
Between murals the guides are happy to answer questions and share their own experiences of life lived under the shadow of the conflict and in prison.
You will learn about the history of the conflict, starting with the defeat of the Catholic King James by the Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, up to the very real divisions that still exist today (albeit more harmonious since the weapons amnesty following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998).
What wounds Brexit will reopen remains to be seen and placing any kind of border restrictions between north and south, or between the island and mainland Britain is going to make someone cross.
You may feel a bit odd smiling in front of some of the murals of machine guns, but putting a serious journalism face on didn’t really work either. My advice, go for a neutral face to match the tour ethic.
As well as murals you will see the memorial walls dedicated to the fallen, and may well encounter grieving relatives holding paintings of their lost relatives. This is not history yet.
You will have the chance to handle some of the plastic and rubber bullets used in the conflict, which sound less innocuous than they look.
The peace wall stretches for 2 kilometres and separates the Protestant and Catholic housing estates. We were told that without the wall there would still be a decent chance of open conflict on the streets. The wall has been raised with successively higher barriers of corrugated iron and chicken wire to prevent missiles flying over it into enemy territory.
The 36 metal gateways in the wall close at 9pm sharp every evening, or earlier if groups start to gather. It is an uneasy peace.
We were invited to sign the peace wall and hoped that one day it could come down. I was castigated by certain family members for my cheesy “Give peace a chance” comment. You might want to think about your daubings in advance so you don’t experience writer’s block when put on the spot.
We came away feeling shocked, educated and cautiously optimistic. This is not a tour you will forget in a hurry.
Getting there: Meet your driver outside the Crumlin Goal – see above for safety details avoiding the Shanklin Estate.
Cost: Buy a combo ticket with the Crumlin Gaol for £30pp. You could opt for a walking tour but this takes 3 hours rather than the 90-minute taxi tour. Know your own body.
Pubs may seem a bit of a surprise entry for the things to do in Belfast with teenagers’ activity list but age is generally no barrier to the wonderful world of Northern Irish public houses. Whether or not your teen is over 18, they will be entertained, and dined if not wined in unique surroundings.
As fun as their counterparts south of the border, you will find friendliness, music, carved Griffins, anti-royalist mosaics and bomb damage. Each pub has its own story to tell.
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The Crown Bar
Refurbished in 1885, the owner’s aim was to create the most fabulous Victorian gin palace in the land, using the master Italian craftsmen working on the local churches to realise his ultimate décor dream.
His wife, however was less of a royalist and only permitted the remainder of the pub to be dedicated to the Crown on the basis that all who entered scraped their dirty feet on its mosaic form embedded in the doorway floor.
The Crown sits opposite the Europa, the most bombed hotel in Europe and as a result has seen its fabulous stained glass window shattered many times. Some of the broken glass has remained unrepaired to commemorate this turbulent past and damage can still be inspected by the eagle eyed.
Starting with the building’s exterior bling, you will find coloured tiles festooning the façade. Victorian stained glass was designed to keep prying eyes away from the drinkers within.
The interior will blow your mind. A selection of carved animals look you in the eye as they guard the 10 individual booths or “snugs”. Each snug has its own Victorian bell to signal when you need a top up (today you pop the wooden door to your secret vestibule open to signal the bar staff).
Every surface has been intricately decorated. Checkout the overly ornate ceiling for detail(s). The red granite bar comes with a heated foot rest.
You may not be surprised to learn that the current owner of the most famous pub in Belfast is the National Trust, whose job it is to preserve this eye-catching wonder for the future. You are literally supporting the nation”s heritage by buying a beer.
Top tip Book ahead for a table in a snug. We got lucky and got a 2 hour slot on the day, even though they were fully booked on line.
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Duke of York
A umbrella rainbow sky leads the way to this treat of a pub, hiding down a cobbled street in the historic and brilliantly named Half Bap area.
There has been a pub on this site for 200 years, although the current building dates from 1973 . It had to be rebuilt after being blown up accidently by the IRA fleeing a checkpoint at their intended target, the nearby High Court.
The current owner of the Duke of York, a former punk and politics graduate, Willie Jack has been in charge since the 80’s and his pub vision is a telly and game machine-free Nirvana of live music and pint drinking. What’s not to like? To further focus the clientele and city on the positive things Northern Ireland has to offer the world, he had the rather clever idea of commissioning non-sectarian murals of local music legends on nearby walls. Look out for Dana and Liam Neeson.
Interesting pub facts: Gerry Adams was once a barman and Snow Patrol played their first gig here.
On the inside, not an inch has been spared from original Belfast pub memorabilia and knick-knacks, from Guinness toucan mirrors to Bushmills whiskey plaques, all somehow fitting into a golden colour scheme to match the ale. It is a feast for the eyes.
The staff are the friendliest I have ever met, rushing to find you a table and spare seats and more than happy for the under 18’s to join the fun. You can‘t order food (this being a proper pub) but a crisp meal is available and if you order by the basket this seems to do the job of dinner.
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Bucking the trend of allowing anyone in, under 18’s are not permitted to enter this drinking establishment (not even in the beer garden). Found in a central but edgy location, your teen will not be permitted to try the woodfired pizzas, but you can check out the “security cage” which remains from the 1980’s, as a reminder of a more volatile age.
If ever a pub did not match it name – it is this one.
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Belfast City Hall
Belfast City Hall, set on the site of the former international Linen Exchange, dominates the centre of Belfast with its shiny white Roman columns. It was added to the list of things to do in Belfast with teenagers because of its surprise interior…
Viscount William Pirrie, the mayor of Belfast from1896-1897, also happened to be the MD of Harland & Wolff Shipyard. A man with big ideas, not only did he decide to embark upon the construction of a huge unsinkable ship, he also found time to launch a competition to design a city hall to celebrate Belfast’s new city status.
The building - a landlubbing Titanic
This Renaissance inspired design, which opened in 1906, was the result. Much like his ship, no expense was spared and the interior is packed with marble, paintings, statues and stained glass.
The same workmen who would fit-out his ship 6 years later, completed the Hall’s panelling, lounges and suites. Viewing the building is as close as it gets to going into a modern-day Titanic.
Fun fact: Inspired by its design there is an exact replica Belfast city hall in Durban
The gardens teem with memorials and statues. Surrounding the Titanic Memorial are plants the colour of water and ice.
The City Hall is illuminated by nightly light displays.
Tours: Free weekday tours of the Hall are available in non-Covid times,
You can currently only pre-book the City Hall Exhibition which takes 15 people every 15 mins through Belfast’s history and 16 rooms in its East wing.
Food: There is a Bobbins Coffee shop on site for sustenance.
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St George's Market
This award-winning and last remaining covered market in the city has lived a full life. It dates from the 1600’s, and was given a roof by the current building in the 1890s. Starting off as a slaughter house it has since diversified. Following extensive bombing of the city in the Blitz, St George’s market, was used as an emergency mortuary during WWII. The market underwent an extensive £4.5m refurbishment in 1997 and as a result is looking tip top today with its red brick, Roman arches, glass ceiling and iron pillars.
What does it sell?
Good times. 300 traders peddle a selection art, fish, antiques, knick-knacks, music and food. This eclectic market stall mix is a perfect place to head in Belfast with teens if the weather turns against you (which it will – even in August). Food, music and shopping – tick.
The market sits between the river and the main shopping area and is a 5 minute stroll from either.
Fri 8-2 / Sat 9-3 / Sun 10-3
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Ever fancied skydiving? Maybe you do, but the height is putting you off? Never fear, indoor skydiving is here. It is the perfect finale to your things to do in Belfast with teenagers activity list.
For £45 you get to don a comedy suit, step into a wind tunnel and fly. Almost. Actually, it’s harder than it looks. Smaller fliers can be assisted in gaining levitation by the instructor becoming a flight buddy in a tandem flight formation.
For taller contenders, you are on your own and achieving that horizonal balance in the jet stream is essential before you are allowed to glide up above head height. Be warned, not everyone meets with success in their 2 minutes of “flight” and some are buffeted quite heavily against the edge of the tube before being repeatedly dumped on the floor.
But once you get the hang of it, it looks amazing. If you need more practice, well then you’ve got an excuse to come back and try to fly again.
You can also combine your flight with a session at the inflatable park next door. Teen heaven? I think so.
Location: Heavenly flight is available in a warehouse style building that is the Vertigo centre, a 5 minute walk form the Titanic and W5 museums.
Don’t let the rubbish strewn access road put you off.
£45 for 1 flight ( 1 hour session – including briefing. Flight time 2 minutes)
£65 for 2 flights
Various bundles are available for multiple flights/ people.
Summary of things to do in Belfast with teenagers
This is a city with so many stories to tell, offering you a destination to remember and food for thought to go with your Guinness. The older child is probably the best placed to appreciate the complexity of this city and country. It certainly left me Googling for more.
Without doubt Belfast provides a unique set of activity options for teens. From fight to flight, sunken ships to Victorian Gin palaces, an eclectic and interesting time is guaranteed for all.
Check out more Northern Ireland teen activities over on my road trip channel. And let me know your top teen travel tips in the comments below.
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